The dogs on the front line of wildlife conservation, from sniffing whale droppings and detecting invasive species to fighting off predators

Dogs are at the forefront of wildlife conservation. Their incredible sense of smell is ideal for detecting animal droppings — to help monitor species’ health and population – contraband and toxins. Photo: Kruger National Park.

Kalpana Sunder, The South China Morning Post | February 2, 2021

Dogs are not just man’s best friend. They also play an increasingly important role in wildlife conservation, protecting endangered species and habitats, finding alien invaders, and catching and deterring smugglers and poachers.

“Dogs can help in detecting sources of toxins in the environment, locating invasive plant and animal species, and search shipping containers for wildlife contraband,” says Samuel Wasser, director of the Centre of Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. They have been helping to track species as varied as snow leopards, koalas and gorillas by finding their droppings. The university’s Conservation Canines (CK9) facility is home to 20 trained sniffer dogs, which have even been used to track killer whale droppings that float on the ocean surface for a limited amount of time. “The CK9 programme has trained dozens of detection dogs over the past 23 years to detect predator and prey species in both terrestrial and marine habitats,” says Wasser. “Our primary focus is on pioneering new applications using detection dogs to address some of the world’s most pressing conservation problems.”

The university has developed more sophisticated methods of analysing the droppings, known as scat, to determine diet, genetics and the population health of wildlife.

“Some of our projects include monitoring impacts of oil development on endangered caribou, as well as moose and wolf, in snow up to eight feet (2.4 metres) deep in the Canadian oil sands, finding the last remaining tigers in Cambodia, and determining the causes of decline among endangered killer whale populations,” he adds.

A dog is well-equipped for the job of conservation guardian and detective. Loyal and intelligent, their extraordinary sense of smell is thought to be many thousands of times more efficient than a human’s because the canine nose has 220 million olfactory receptors compared with five million in the human nose. Dogs can detect scent particles in the air, and can even smell contraband buried 10 metres below ground.

Common breeds used in conservation include the large and burly Italian Maremma, Belgian Malinois, German shepherd, beagle and border collie.

Scientists from the Zambian Carnivore Programme in Africa, working with Zambia’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, use dogs to find cheetah droppings to help determine accurate numbers of the endangered big cats. Two trained dogs found 27 scat samples in an area of 2,400 square kilometres (925 square miles) in western Zambia, according to a study published in the Journal of Zoology.

In an entirely different African landscape, the rare Cross River gorilla dwells in the highland forests on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, where they face constant pressure from hunters, habitat loss and population fragmentation. A team of researchers from Germany and the US used trained dogs to sniff out the gorillas’ scat to determine the size of the population.

Meanwhile, invasive species are on the march around the world: foxes, domestic cats, rabbits and a range of other species have become the largest threats to native species. Dogs can be trained to search for these intrusive mammals, as well as encroaching insects, reptiles and even fish. Detection dogs have been used on Macquarie Island, a nature reserve in the Pacific Ocean 1,500km southeast of Australia, where seals and seabirds breed. Pests including cats, rabbits, rats and mice have been eradicated from the Unesco-listed sanctuary in recent years with the dogs’ help.

“The island now has strict biosecurity to ensure no pests such as rats or mice ever return. Detection dogs are used in the biosecurity process to check all the cargo before it departs and when it arrives at the island,” says Sue Robinson, a biologist and detection dog handler.

“The two Macquarie Island rodent detection dogs, Nui and Flick, have regular training to maintain their skills of sniffing out rodents among different types of cargo and on the ship. They are also trained to work around the wildlife that lives at the island and the field station.” In the US, Maryland’s agriculture department trains dogs to find traces of American foulbrood, a type of bacterial infection that kills bee larvae, and in Hawaii, dogs check for invasive yellow crazy ants at the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

Guard dogs can also help in conservation, by limiting human-wildlife conflicts. Since 1994, the Cheetah Conservation Fund non-profit organisation has deployed Anatolian shepherd and Kangal dogs on farms across Namibia to protect livestock against predators. The canines are provided to Namibian farmers as puppies and, as they mature, bond with the cattle herds, and their ferocious presence helps keep potential predators away.

Working Dogs for Conservation in Montana (WD4C) in the US is a non-profit organisation that describes itself as the world’s leading conservation detection dog organisation. WD4C has trained dogs to sniff out ivory, bush meat and ammunition to help prevent poaching in Africa. In North America, the dogs have learned to detect the presence of a disease in elk dung, a problem when the mammal and cattle share pastures.

“WD4C has trained dogs in the field of invasive threats to find Chinese bush clover in Iowa, yellow star-thistle in Colorado, rosy wolf snails in Hawaii, and brown tree snakes in Guam,” says Breanne Black-Ender of WD4C.

“Conservation detection dogs can be up to 40 times more efficient than human searchers at developing population and habitat data.”

The slaughter of African rhinos, whose horns are smuggled to Asia for traditional medicinal uses, is a huge problem in South Africa, with more than half of all rhinos poached in the country killed in Kruger National Park.

In 2017, Theresa Sowry, CEO of the Southern African Wildlife College – a wildlife management and training facility based near Kruger – visited Texas and saw the hounds used by law enforcement to track down escaping prison inmates. Dogs like these are now often deployed in packs in Kruger, where they can run poachers to ground far faster than people, with handlers following in helicopters.

The Kruger National Park now uses various breeds, including Doberman bloodhound crosses, Malinois, German shepherds and Labradors in its fight against poaching

“The K9 unit is used in daily patrolling duties by special operations rangers,” says Isaac Phaala, communications manager at Kruger National Park. “They are also used in response to following up on fresh spoor [the track or scent of an animal] that has been identified. Finally, they are used to arrest poachers in the field once the suspects have been sighted. The other use of K9 is at the gates when they search cars for contraband.”